book promotion, book sales

Another Report from the Front

Having seen my book sales stall spectacularly over the last year or so (big news, I know), I decided to hoard my pennies and buy some ad time to promote some free giveaway days on Amazon.com. (I know, I know. The irony of having to pay to give your books away is not lost on me, but I don’t want to get into that.) Simply making your books free on Amazon will get you bupkis in terms of downloads, ‘cuz who’s going to notice? So you pay for attention. The hope? That among those who download the book for free will be a fair number that will actually read it, maybe review it, maybe like it well enough to buy your other books and give them to all of his friends, including the indie movie director looking for fresh product for her next feature film production.

You get the idea. To be honest, I have done this before and reported on it here.  The results never actually pay for themselves (nor did they this time) but a giveaway does generate a few sales after the fact, and some royalties from folks who read the books on KU.

I did things a little different this time. Mostly, I made both of my older titles (Spark and Flight of the Wren) free at the same time, and ran a variety of promotions, both free and paid. I did not promote the giveaway on Facebook or Twitter, and I do not think I missed much by not doing so. I’ve never gotten a noticeable bounce from posting in either location, even when I used Facebook’s paid ads.

So where did I promote? Robin Reads, Awesome Gang, Free and Discounted Books, ebooklister, Digital Book Today, Ask David, Bookangel, Frugal Freebies… Basically, a bunch of websites and emailing services that exist precisely for that purpose (Including the rather ominously named Ignite Your Book).

Basically, it goes like this:  You make your book free for up to five days (as a member of KU, you can do that every three months). Your promoters list your book as being free in their promotional material (some are email lists, which can be pretty effective. Some are simply listings on their websites, which tend to be worthless.) Readers notice, and go to Amazon (hopefully with a simply click) and download your book for free. This downloading causes your book to climb up the Amazon lists, specifically the Top 100 Free in Kindle Store list. Only that list isn’t nearly specific enough. Your book will begin showing up on the sub-lists, like Top 100 Free Historical Fiction list, or Top 100 Free Genre Fiction list. But even that isn’t specific enough. You may get to those lists eventually, but the lists that really help you get noticed break it down even farther than that, because these lists have 100 titles (right?) which are spread out over five pages, and who’s got time to search five whole pages? No. You want to get on page one, preferably near the top.

Fortunately, the sub-category lists are made to make this possible, and your book will end up on several of them, depending on what categories and keywords you chose when you were publishing your book on Kindle Direct Publishing.

Here’s how it worked for me. On KDP, I listed Spark as Fiction>Science Fiction>Alien Contact. Since you can put it in two categories I also listed it as Juvenile Fiction>Science Fiction. These aren’t optimal, but you only get so many options to choose from. Under Keywords, I chose: female protagonist, high school, parallel universe, gnosticism, paranormal, extraterrestrial, girl’s basketball. I know, this is a pretty funny list, but I was trying to cover the bases. I wanted both some popular lists (on which my book would be obscure) and some obscure lists (on which my book would be popular, or at least prominent). During the giveaway, Spark made a good showing on the Juvenile Fiction>Science Fiction>Aliens list. Also the Juvenile Fiction>Science Fiction>First Contact list. It also got some play on the Paranormal, Occult, Supernatural list. It got to #1 on all of these lists and #4 for the Top 100 Free Science Fiction list. Even on the BIG list (Top 100 Free in Kindle Stores list) it made a tiny splash, topping out at #74.

Genre Fiction>Society>Marriage

Obviously, appearing on numerous lists in higher positions perpetuates more downloads, causing your book to climb even higher, and so on and so forth. This is what drives downloads once the initial push from promotion peters out (and it does quickly). Flight of the Wren didn’t do as well as Spark, only reaching #99 on the BIG list, but it did spend considerable time on page one of Teen & Young Adult>Coming of Age list, and the Genre Fiction lists, getting as high as #20 for Genre Fiction, putting it in company with a considerable amount of rather generic looking chick lit and a lot of gay smut. (For a long time, Renny’s face floated among the chiseled male torsos of fire fighters, navy seals, and rodeo ropers.) Spark, on the other hand, spent most of her time bobbing around among such titles as Earthkid Hero, Mickey the Martian, Starship Conquest, and Deck the Malls with Purple Peacocks.

Then, after your giveaway times out, it all ends. Abruptly. My download totals were as follows: Day One — 1822 downloads. Day Two — 2203 downloads. Day Three — 798 downloads. Day four had 26 downloads, but those were just residuals, because I had ended the promotion by then. In the three weeks since the promotion, I have sold nine books. (Don’t be jealous, kids.) Also, and more importantly, I have had 5798 page reads through KU. Probably, these have already peaked, but they could continue for a while. I’ve had a couple of near zero days, but only four days ago I had a 575 page day, so you never know. For the record, KU considers my books to have 426 and 411 pages respectively, so 5798 pages is equal to almost 14 complete readings, and royalties are roughly equal to that many sales.

So, worth it? I dunno. Certainly I lost money, but I knew I would. But for every reader I know about, there might be dozens more. Nearly 5000 people downloaded my books, and some of them will read them, eventually, maybe. Some isn’t many, probably, but it has to be something. A mere two percent would be one hundred readers.

We’ll see. It takes time. I’ve gotten a few reviews already. That takes time too.

But that seems like the subject for another day.

Advertisements
Standard
book promotion, book sales, Writers Co-op

FROM NICHE TO SCRATCH

(OR HOW TO MAKE A SIX-FIGURE INCOME WITHOUT LEAVING YOUR CHAIR)

I get these ads in my Facebook feed from time to time (all right, every day) suggesting that my lackluster book sales are the result of my unimaginative marketing plan and my lack of vision. There are fortunes to be made on the internet and, with their guidance, I too can board that boat I keep missing, grab the brass ring, quit my day job, start drinking the good stuff and enjoying wafer-thin after dinner chocolates whenever I damn well like.

I am, in case you haven’t guessed, skeptical. I have seen so many of these pitches—and yes, even done a seminar or two—and I always, ALWAYS find the same thing: tired platitudes about perseverance and “giving the people what they want.” Find out who your core audience is, they tell me, and then market directly to them. Grow your mailing list (they love to use grow as a transitive* verb, it’s market-speak doncha know?) Offer free stuff! Find your niche! Become a brand! Write a blog with a cute and catchy name! People will WANT to buy whatever you sell because they will want to buy YOU!

Or, something like that. Maybe it all sounds so unlikely to me because I really don’t find being marketed to at all appealing. You want me to buy your stuff. I get it. Don’t try to razzle-dazzle me with bling or tchotchkes or other crap I didn’t want in the first place, and don’t try and tell me that I’m part of some special club now, and I should hashtag you every time I twit. All you’ll end up doing is making me feel insulted. I don’t want to be critical of the general population (gen pop in eerily-appropriate prison parlance) but if this approach really works with a sizable number of them, well, then, I guess it’s not much wonder that I can’t connect.

Do I sound old and irritable? Check. And check.

A musician I’ve never heard of pitched my feed this morning. She makes six figures working from home (homeschooling mother of four!) selling her CD’s on the internet. She doesn’t perform live or do personal appearances (homeschooling mother of four!) It’s all internet-based marketing. And yet—six figures.

Okay. So sell me. Tell me one new thing in your pitch and I’ll sign up for your marketing course.

Probably my inner skeptic automatically prevents me from approaching this sort of thing with an open mind, but honestly? She’s got nothing. As far as I can tell, her big reveal (and yes, they love to use reveal as a noun) can be summed up in one sentence: “Why be a little fish in a big pond when you can be a big fish in a small pond?” In other words, find a niche.

Niche marketing isn’t a particularly new idea. Back in the days when brick-and-mortar bookstores (remember those?) were still a thing, there was a lot of handwringing about the big chain stores—Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waldens—driving the independents out of business. As it turned out, they had all underestimated the white whale lurking beneath the swells, a little thing called Amazon.com, but I digress. A lot of independent bookstores did go out of business, especially the be-everything-to-everyone-get-your-bestsellers-for-thirty-percent-off-but-we-also-have-a-great-backlist-and-you-can-get-a-cup-of-coffee type of bookstores. Curiously, it was often the small niche stores that survived. The New Age Salon in Santa Fe. The Knitting Book Nook in Seattle. Cats Are People, Too in Minneapolis (plus Cats Are People, Two in St. Paul.) I made all of those up, of course, but it was a real phenomenon. Providing a specialized list of books to a very specific audience can be a successful enterprise, if you’re not too fussy about your definition of success.

And with the internet at our twitchy fingertips, such specialized stores should be even more viable. Now you don’t even need a store, and you can reach millions of potential customers. Our Homeschooling Mother of Four’s niche? Celtic Heavy Metal. Christian Celtic Heavy Metal, as it happens. I admit, it’s hard for me to write those words without feeling my eyes roll, but hey, everybody likes something. I’d plug her website, but I don’t want to get curmudgeon all over her nice, shiny, heavy Celtic Christian vibe. Frankly, it was all a little slick and predictable for my tastes. She can play, and it’s a very professional production for a homemade disk, but—six figures? Really? Is she counting the ones after the decimal point?

(Yeah. That did sound bitter. I withdraw the question, your honor.)

And besides. If she’s making a hundred thousand dollars doing what she loves best, following her calling, etc, then why is she wasting her time hawking some by-the-numbers marketing program to wannabes like me? Wait. Is it because she wants to share her innovative strategies with others? Cuz she’s been so fortunate and now she wants to give something back? It’s amazing how many marketing gurus have tried that line on me. And every time they do, I feel my brain getting a little bit smaller, atrophying in its bony shell.

So niche marketing, yes or no? It certainly has many proponents. There was a guy the other day telling me that selling books on Amazon wasn’t necessarily good, because you might be selling to the wrong people. Amazon’s search-and-sell algorithms are keyed to recognize patterns. Did consumer A purchase your book? Okay. What else has she purchased? Is there a pattern? What else might she want? How can we steer her to those things? It’s all about your target audience, and selling books to people outside of your target audience only confuses the algorithms. It gums up the works, dilutes the information stream. Better to sell fewer books but to the right audience. That way, the marketing machinery will recognize your audience members and find more of them for you.

I think that’s what he was saying. I glazed over a bit around paragraph three but that was the gist. You need to focus on your target audience. Also, write a LOT of books. One a month if possible. (And no, I’m not making that part up.)

I can’t do that, but maybe I could do something like it. I have two thirds of a YA historical trilogy about the Minoan civilization. It’s fun, and has lots of magic and adventure. Plus, did I mention the Minoan civilization? You can’t get much more niche-y than that. By the time I finish book three, it’ll be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1300 pages, but I can break it up into fragments, 200 pages here, 150 pages there. That’s gotta be good for at seven or eight books. I can saturate all the pre-Hellenic Greece websites, twitter-blitz every website about ancient matrifocal cultures, haunt the linear-A chatrooms. Who knows what could happen? I could catch on, and soon a whole herd of bookish kids and history geeks will be hanging on my next installment. And then, the movie deal. Maybe Miyazaki. It’s ready made for Studio Ghibli.

And then, while plotting out this strategy, I see this quote from, of all people, Hayao Miyazaki. ”In order to grow your audience,” he says, “you must betray their expectations.”

Yeah. I don’t know whether that’s really true in the age of the instant entertainment, but it should be. It really should. Otherwise, what tipping point have we gone past where people only want more of the same? Only want what worked for them before? Cuz, wow! Culture-wise? That’s an ocean that’s barely knee-deep.

 

*Yes, I know grow can be a transitive verb when we’re talking about string beans or snapdragons, but the modern fixation with “growing your business” or “growing your client base” is definitely market-speak.

Standard
Uncategorized, writing technique

Me and Hemingway

The other day, this blog post appeared in my Facebook feed with the title:  “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write.”

Once you get past the clickbait title, it’s a pretty good post. The reading level analysis the post is talking about is called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a method developed in the 1970s for evaluating the difficulty of a text. Basically, it analyses a text for complexity and assigns it a reading level.

Just for kicks, I fed a brief, randomly-selected chapter from my newest book, Whisper Blue into the analyzer over at ReadabilityScore.com and clicked analyze. My score?  A whopping 4.1. Fourth grade reading level. Ha! Shows what an erudite elitist I am! The analysis of Text Quality said I had:

—5 sentences with 30 or more syllables
—20 with 20 or more syllables
—3 words with 4 or more syllables, and
—no words exceeding 12 letters.

And this, really, is ALL that Flesch-Kincaid analyzes. Long sentences and long words get you a higher grade level score; short words and short sentences get you grammar school scores. A reductive metric if ever I saw one, but Flesch-Kincaid was never meant to be more than a very rough guide. There’s really no judgment involved. It’s simply a crude measure of complexity. And you know who else wrote at a fourth grade level? Ernest Hemingway. How about Cormac McCarthy? Fifth grade. Likewise Jane Austen. Tolstoy? Fitzgerald? Stephen King? Yup. They all, apparently, wrote for middle schoolers.

Obviously, these sorts of grades tell us a lot more about the test then they do about the texts. And the whole thing points out some of the difficulties involved in using any kind of standardized approach to evaluating creative work. For example, the analyzer at Readabilityscore.com also includes a tally of three of the best known No-Nos all writers should avoid: use of the passive voice, adverbs, and clichés. My score was 7 passives, 1 cliché, and a whopping 68 adverbs!

Yoiks! I suck! Only, I don’t really. In the first place, a large amount of the text I selected is dialogue. And normal human speech is riddled with adverbs and passive constructions, not to mention clichés. And in the second place, most of these adverbs weren’t bad adverbs, and most of the passive constructions weren’t even passive.

Example—the site flagged the following phrases as passive:

“maybe I shouldn’t be encouraging him.”

“Everything was going to be all right.”

“One minute I was dismissing the whole thing as mumbo jumbo, the next I was withdrawing a hundred dollars from the ATM, just in case.”

These aren’t passive. Apparently, when the search algorithm sees a construction like “was going” or “was dismissing” or “be encouraging,” it mistakes auxiliary verb constructions (such as continuing action) for a passive constructions.

As far as my copious use of adverbs, here are a few examples (the underlined words were flagged as adverbs):

There you go.”

“That’s probably exactly what happened.”

“That old fake had us jumping around like a couple of citified rubes, but it was all just a show!”

“You are not going anywhere three nights from now!”

Adverbs are not evil. Yes, it’s awful when writers overuse those dreaded -ly constructions, especially in dialogue tags. But adverbs expressing place (there) or time (now) really don’t get my critical dander up. I suppose probably is modifying exactly, (adverbs can modify other adverbs) but then why didn’t they flag exactly, which is an adverb of manner? And I’m not at all sure which verb, adjective or adverb just is supposed to be modifying in the third example.

Needless to say, this isn’t very useful as a writing tool, but there are a lot of sites like readability-score.com out there. Usually they let you try it out for free—paste some text and have them identify the alleged problems. Then, after you’ve used your share of free samples, you can sign up and pay for membership. I’m not sure what readability-score.com charges for membership, but even as a free service, it seems slightly overpriced. And it isn’t simply that it misidentifies the passive voice—I’ve seen human editors do the same.

0The problem is more one of attitude. Grammar and syntax have rules, but there are endless subtleties. Even if the website correctly spotted adverbs and passive constructions, the suggestion that adverbs are always wrong, or that the passive voice is always a weak choice, is simplistic at best. You should be aware of what your are doing, at all times,, and make good choices but following boilerplate suggestions for improving your prose is only going to produce boilerplate prose.  Good writing is clear, evocative, and surprising—and no algorithm is going to make that happen for you.

(By the way, If you’d like to check it out for yourself, my paranormal thriller about voodoo and cyber-ghosts and the mass hysteria of the crowds is available at Amazon, Kobo, and other places. I think you’ll like it. No matter what your reading level is.)

Standard
book promotion, book reviews

How Genre Dysphoria is Ruining my Writing Career

I hate the dropdown list.

If you’ve ever tried to enlist your book at a book-marketing website or even just self-publish it on Amazon, you’ve seen the dropdown list:

Please select a genre for your book:

  • Fantasy
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Horror
  • Thriller
  • Paranormal
  • Literary
  • Young Adult

Of course, many of the lists are more diverse, giving you everything from Urban Fantasy to Paranormal Romance, but you know what? That doesn’t make any difference, because no matter how specific the genre, it still doesn’t fit my books. In fact, making the choices more specific only makes the problem worse. The smaller the pigeon-hole, the worse the fit.

***

There are two golden rules of selling stuff:

1. know what you are selling

and

2. know who you are selling to.

They are the twin maxims of marketing. Write something people want, and then go out and find them. Know thy audience! Then target them. I’ve given almost no thought to who my books are for. It’s not that I’m not interested. I want people to like my books, of course, but I have no control over that.  I haven’t gone to a single bookstore, online or otherwise, trying to find other books that are similar to mine so I can tap into a ready-made audience.

I’m supposed to do that. I’m supposed to go and find that audience.

It’s one of the many things I’ve done wrong. I don’t target my audience. I don’t write high-concept. My books don’t sit comfortably in any particular genre. I can’t even identify an appropriate age group. I classified Spark as Young Adult, but in all the comments by reviewers at Amazon, what was the single most common observation?

The book isn’t really YA:

“…definitely different from your typical young adult novel.”

“I’m not sure it can be classified as Young Adult.”

“I am trying to think of the best genre to which this book belongs.”

“what separates this book from other YA or science fiction-type of books is the attention to detail and language.”

“…not typical of YA books in general.”

“…may be a little misclassified as a YA novel.”

Here’s the thing, though: while everybody mentioned it, nobody called it a bad thing. In some cases, not fitting in was a bonus. Being different can be a good thing.

So while a marketing consultant might leap on my genre dysphoria as the fatal flaw that is preventing the book from catapulting to a wider audience, I don’t think most readers really care all that much. And sure, there are plenty of people out there who only read cozy mysteries or high fantasy or YA dystopian, but those people probably aren’t going to be in my audience anyway. We’ll never be more than just friends.

And if I’m going to be totally honest about it, I like genre bending. I enjoy books that are hard to classify, that defy convention, that live in the spaces between categories. I like reading them. I like writing them. So maybe it isn’t a problem at all.

Except for those damned dropdown lists.

Standard
book promotion, book sales

Report from the Front Lines.

Nine Hundred and Forty-Two Million. According to Wikipedia, that’s the number of English speakers in the world. That includes 603 million people for whom it is a second language.

As a writer ever in search of an audience, my first crass thought upon hearing that statistic is: I wonder how many of them might want to read my books?

A study by the Pew Research Center reported that 23% of all Americans didn’t read a single book during 2014, and there’s not much reason to expect that number to improve. In addition, some of those other 77% who did read a book only read one, so they probably aren’t exactly hopefuls. So how many are real potential readers? Well, that same study showed that 42% of Americans read 11 books or more in the past year, roughly one a month. So lets use that figure. Let’s say 42% of 942 million.

That’s almost 400 million readers. Sell to a mere one percent of those folks, and you’re one of the most successful writers on the planet.

This sort of number crunching has been on my mind because I ran my first ever free promotion on Amazon a short while back for my book Spark. As most of you probably know, Amazon lets you sell your book for free for five days out of every ninety. I chose to spend the whole five days in one swoop. Here’s how the whole thing went down:

Day One: I decided to do Day One with a minimum of promotion. I was originally going to do none at all just to establish a baseline, but I got impatient so I did a couple of Twitter posts on sites that promote free books (maybe a dozen altogether). Day One total:  69 downloads.

Day Two: Here’s where the promotions kicked in. I chose two paid sites: Book Barbarian and Free Kindle Books and Tips. Total paid: $60. I set those up about a month in advance. I also submitted the book to a whole bunch of free promotional sites as well, about thirty. This was a very tedious and time consuming process. I also kept on promoting on Twitter, although not a lot. I have to admit, day two was kind of exciting, mostly because it was fun to watch the numbers climb. Day Two total: 1475 downloads.

(Note: some of the free sites posted my ad and some didn’t. It’s hard to be certain but I know the following sites posted: Reading Deals, My Book Cave (very helpful), It’s Write Now, eBookasaurus (but no cover picture), Bookangel, Ask David (very nice), Ignite Your Book (again, no cover), frugal freebies, discountbookman (first listing on the page. Nice.) and bookbongo.com. Some of these listings were little more than a postage stamp-sized cover on a page full of the same, and others were pretty nice. Next time, I’ll check them out a little more carefully beforehand, but hey, what d’ya want for free?)

Day Three: I kept on posting on Twitter and on a couple of free Facebook promotional pages, but I was probably mostly still riding the wave of my Day Two promotional push. I might have also been getting some downloads from Amazon’s own internal marketing machinery by now, because the book received pretty prominent placement on the Top Free Books lists. It was number one or two in Children’s Books Fantasy, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Magic, categories like that, so anyone browsing free books in those categories would have seen it. I topped out at number 4 for Free Children’s eBooks overall, and was high up on that list for a couple of days.

(A note about that: Children’s Books is not the label I would have chosen. Young Adult, sure, but Children’s Books was a very confused category. Spark was, at times, sandwiched between The Lonely Balloon, How to Draw Sea Creatures and Sinful Cinderella (which wasn’t porn, despite the name.) I think it would’ve done better if it had been on the YA list, but I must have entered it wrong. (Incidentally, there were other YA books on the list. In fact the comparable paid list was mostly various Harry Potter. But still, it wasn’t the ideal category.)

My best position for the overall free list occurred on Day Three. For a few hours, Spark was the 88th most downloaded free book at the Amazon Kindle store. That was cool, but I’m sure my placement on the minor category lists got me a lot more looks. Day Three total: 752 downloads.

By Day Four things were slowing down. I continued to post on Twitter, and I did a boosted Facebook post which got a fair number of looks. It cost me eleven dollars, reached 1185 people, and garnered about 50 likes. It’s hard to know if it resulted in more downloads, but certainly no more than those 50, so that was clearly the worst-spent money in the campaign. But I got some new likes on my author page, and probably moved a couple of books. Day Four total: 409 downloads.

In the end, after five days, my downloads totaled 3061 units.

In truth, I’ve never been crazy about the idea of giving away my books. I know a lot of you feel the same. You worked hard on your books, and you believe them to be things of value. Giving them away is like saying “Hey! These are trivial and expendable! Have one!” And, as you’ve probably seen when established independent authors grouse about the glory days of two or three years ago, the free days don’t really work as well as they used to. Most of the people who love eBook giveaways have kindles already jammed with hundreds of books they haven’t read yet.

Kristen Lamb strongly discourages free giveaways, because it sets the expectation bar so low. People now expect eBooks to be free, which undervalues all of our work. I don’t disagree, but I also think that ship has sailed. It’s fine for me to refuse on principal, but who’s going to notice? The millions of people who are actively not buying my books?

You have to have an audience. You just do. It’s fine for Kristin Lamb to preach, and I’m glad she is, but she already has people listening. I don’t.

Look at it like this: I wasn’t selling books anyway. Now 3000 people have the book and might read it, might like it, might buy one of my other books. One percent? Two percent? Dare I hope for five percent? One hundred and fifty new readers?

I’d call that a start. Of course, I’ll never really know just how many, but I have sold six copies of Spark since the promotion (which is more than the week before. Hell, it’s more than the month before)  and over 3000 pages  have been read through Kindle Unlimited (plus 400 pages of Flight of the Wren, which UnknownI suppose was just a random occurrence). I’ve had two new five-star reviews  on my Amazon page and 33 people have added Spark to to their “to read” or “reading now” lists on GoodReads. So at the very least it means people saw it and wanted it, so it must be okay. The cover, the blurb, the Amazon landing page, they can’t be as unappealing as I sometimes think they must be, given the deafening roar of indifference I usually experience. So I’d do it again and I’d recommend it to others. And I’d recommend using as many forms of promotion as you can manage or afford. Make the most out of your giving. If my baseline of 69 books on Day One is any indication, my promotional efforts increased downloads by a factor of almost nine, so that’s highly significant.

I know it may seem odd crowing about how many books I gave away. Even odder that I spent money for the privilege. And it’s true, I spent $72 on my giveaway and so far I’ve made maybe 25 bucks back, but it’s only been a week or so. The books are out there. It takes time for people to read them.

This is the long game we’re playing.

I’ll keep you posted.

Standard
book promotion, book sales

Publishing Through a Start-up Independent Publisher

Our guest post today is from Tom Wolosz, writer, hiker and geologist, who kindly proposed to document his trek through the ups and downs of Bookkus…
[Let me preface this by saying that I’ve enjoyed working with Bookkus, and hold no hard feelings toward anyone there. The publishing business is tough, and everyone gives it their best shot. So I won’t use any names, but will be honest about my experience. I will always be grateful for their support, and for publishing my book.]
     My history is similar to what a number of others have described here – after beginning my novel Agony of the Gods I joined Book Country. For about a year it was a great site – lots of good friends critiquing each other’s work, lots of good advice for me. When I finished about the 6th draft I started submitting to publishers with zero success. Truthfully, it still needed a lot of work, and, since I was an unpublished writer, at over 400,000 words it was way too long for an established publishing house to take as chance on.
     At about that time a comment appeared in a thread I was following. A publisher was looking for manuscripts, but he was following a new model – the readers, as opposed to an editor, would decide what to publish. Sounded interesting so I decided to give it a try. (I should also mention that at about this time there was a major change at Book Country. The original site administrator left, and there appeared to be a shift to pushing their self-publishing services. This soured me on the site because I’ve always felt that pushing self-publishing is a bit dishonest, but I won’t go into that here.)
     I was soon devoting myself entirely to Bookkus. The concept is fascinating. Let the reviewers decide! Submit your ms. and if you get about 10-20 reviews and they average 3.5/5 or better you’ve got a shot at getting published. Now it isn’t a slam dunk because the initial reviews are available to the author. The publisher realized that very often folks might write a good review so as not to be cruel, while not really feeling the book is worth publishing. So the next step was a closed discussion. At this point the author is excluded from the group so the reviewers can be frank in their comments.
     I really enjoyed taking part. I read a number of books, many of which were clearly not publishable (first drafts with more grammatical errors and misspellings than not, poorly thought out plots filled with non sequiturs, etc.). In reviewing them I always tried to be helpful despite giving them poor ratings (what we all wish publishers would do). For those that moved on to the closed session I found the point-counterpoint discussions over whether or not to publish fascinating. Although one thought that struck me early on was that I really had no skin in the game. My cold, hard cash wasn’t on the table which made it a bit easier to argue “publish!” In the end two of the three books I thought were publishable were accepted, although only one has actually seen the light of day.
     In the meantime Agony was getting some good reviews. It went into closed session and the result was a decision to publish! Obviously, I was thrilled.
     The process after that was a bit stressful. I think the biggest problem was that in working with a start-up you’re dealing with folks who have limited experience themselves.
     My first editor started by telling me she loved the book (which really wasn’t true – there was a hole in the website program which allowed me to sneak in and read the publish-or-not discussion), and then told me to cut it by 1/3 and totally rewrite one of the main characters including discarding her origin story! Distressed, I contacted the publisher. He told me that the relationship between author and editor is often argumentative, and that I should just carefully explain to her why I felt I couldn’t follow her advice. I did, and the response I got was “Just do what I say!” That pretty much stalled progress on my book. At the same time another book I had reviewed was in publish-or-not discussion, and despite an 11 – 0 vote in favor by the reviewers, my editor insisted it was horrible and should not be published. That put the publisher in a bind because the Bookkus model is “let the readers decide.” In the end, he over-ruled my editor, and the decision was publish. My editor then resigned.
     A couple of weeks later I had a new editor, and we worked well together. Whenever he saw a problem we discussed it and reached a conclusion satisfactory to all. Granted, one reason for the big difference between editors consisted of this one being hired by the publisher on a per book basis, so I also assume his attitude was to be helpful and give advice but if I didn’t want to take it, well that was my problem.
     In the meantime, the publisher was looking for cover art. We tried a few for-hire illustrators (lots of websites out there offering cover art), but found either nothing of interest or limited ability to modify their graphic art (if they had something with potential, modifications we asked for were beyond their capability). The publisher finally did it himself. He came up with a simple cover illustration which really did the trick. I’ve always been very pleased with it.
     The final step was working with the line editor. This guy was not as bad as my first editor, but was close. I’m pretty sure he had written a book himself, which only added to his know-it-all attitude (granted to be a writer, myself included, you need a pretty large ego), and he did make some valuable comments (I do greatly overuse ‘that’) and corrections. Unfortunately, he had absolutely no concept of science fiction. In some cases I politely explained his mistakes, in others I just ignored him. He was also in love with a computer program which counts the number of times a word is used and highlights perceived overuse. I do know I often “fall in love” with words and overuse them, but recognizing this foible I work to correct it. Unfortunately, many times there are only a limited number of choices. My line editor would apparently run to the thesaurus, find a word I had not used and substitute it for mine. The problem was he ignored the first rule of the thesaurus game – when you find a nifty synonym check the dictionary to make sure it really fits. I must admit there were a number of times my annoyance was curbed by my chuckling at the words he chose. In the end I accepted about 10% of his suggestions.
     Well, Agony of the Gods was finally published in January of 2014. This is where the real problem with a small independent publisher comes into play. I think the publisher’s hope was “build it and they will come,” – that the lure of a book chosen by the reading community would be enough to ensure sales. Well, it hasn’t happened yet.
     We went through the free kindle version giveaways (a couple of times) and there was an initial spurt of good reviews, but things never seemed to take off. On the Bookkus website my book is up to around 280 members (to what degree that translates to sales I have no idea). The publisher contacted me about a book tour, but that failed to materialize despite my being willing to foot the bill. I think the problem comes down to the limited number of reviews. My book has 31 on Goodreads and 15 on Amazon, but without 50 – 100 or more it appears to be difficult to generate interest for signings, readings, etc. So there has only been very limited marketing which is a major problem.
     I also set up a Webpage running a blog about writing, and while I do get a number of visits every week, there’s no evidence that this has helped market my book.
     Sales overall have been meager, a few copies here, a few there (mostly Kindle). How does it stack up to the other Bookkus books? Hard to say since I can only look at the Amazon listings, but they all appear about the same, maybe a bit better than mine.
     What’s the overall outlook? Again, hard to say. The publisher has pretty much let the website float since November, when his last new post went up. Having now published 7 books, the publisher may be out of cash, or just waiting to see if anything takes off before pulling the plug. I don’t know, but at this point all I can do is wait and see.
Standard
book promotion, book reviews

Just Wanna Be Misunderstood

I think most of us small-time writers share at least one trait in common: we obsess over our reviews. I know I do. When a new review pops up, I scrutinize it, interrogate it for clues, for hidden meanings. Like a hermit living in a remote garrett, starving for news from the outside world, I read it over and over.

And it is, in fact, a completely pointless activity. Reviews are what they are. You can’t change them, and they may not even be all that important in terms of selling books (the subject is at least debatable.) There’s really no reason to read them at all unless you are one of those writers who plots his next book according to what worked in the last one—and if by worked, you mean earned positive feedback from reviewers.

I’m not, and I don’t. But I can’t deny my own fascination. Sometimes, even months later I’ll take them out and play with them, arranging them just so. Is this just an ego primp? Maybe. Though it’s often the the less-than-glowing reviews that keep drawing me back for another look. Some little comment, some bit of faint praise. What’s that supposed to mean? Why did he say that? Who says I’ve got pacing issues?

A while back, I received a review of Spark. It wasn’t bad. It was four stars and mostly positive. There were parts she found a little confusing (and very weird) but she praised the writing and the characters. She wasn’t wowed by the ending, which seemed incomplete to her (an occupational hazard. I tend to like a loose ending.) But the money quote, the one that knocked me over, came near the beginning:

“I have the oddest feeling walking away from this book that I’m not sure I can even begin to describe. Spark by Atthys J. Gage was not what I was expecting, and yet it hit the bullet points of everything it promised. Even now, half an hour after finishing the book, I sit here and marvel at what I just read in a strange state of confusion…”

(The boldface is my addition because, hey, read it!)

Near the end she added: “It was both better, and odder than I expected, and I was entertained.”

I can’t entirely explain why this made me so happy. I’m not one to value obscurity for its own sake. Ambiguity can be a powerful tool in writing, but it needs careful handling. It’s no good being abstruse if it’s just so people will assume you’ve got some heavy, brainy subplot going on.

Take it from me, Spark is not a particularly symbolic book. The story is pretty much right there on the page. I didn’t design it to be an allegory with deep hidden meanings. And yet, this reviewer found in it something so confusing that she marveled at it.  AND she still liked it.

All fiction is allegory. Real life, in fact, is rife with allegory, and even though we are usually at a loss to explain the hidden meaning that seems to underlie the mundane events of our lives, in transcendent moments we are at least aware of it, even profoundly so. And how do we typically respond to that glimmer of awareness? With confusion. A confusion so deep and disturbing that we marvel at it. Life is, perhaps, both better and odder than we expect it to be.

If a book can invoke that kind of confusion, even for one person? I’ll take that as a win.

Then again, maybe I just want to be misunderstood.

All right, enough of me indulging myself. How’s about you indulging yourselves for a while. Has a review ever changed your life or made you fundamentally rethink what you’ve been doing? It’s mostly just us scribblers here, so don’t worry. You have my permission to crow, just a little bit.

Standard